In Business of Home’s series Shop Talk, we chat with owners of home furnishings stores across the country to hear about their hard-won lessons and challenges, big and small—to find out what they see for the future of small industry businesses like theirs.
This week, we spoke with sisters Tanya Willock and Temidra Willock-Morsch, who own the Southampton, New York, store Hidden Gem. Their colorful coastal aesthetic is inspired by their surroundings and upbringing in the Hamptons, as well as their Antiguan heritage. With their own creative backgrounds—Willock previously managed a gallery and specializes in photography, while Willock-Morsch has worked in fashion design with a focus on textiles—they make many of the store’s products, such as their popular painted, resin-coated surfboard art pieces. The pair chatted about operating a seasonal business, the ways they’re expanding and turning their creative brains on and off.
Courtesy of Hidden Gem
Why did you want to open a store?
Willock-Morsch: We’ve always been creative. We grew up with my grandmother, who was a seamstress, and she would teach us how to knit and crochet. Then we would sell our product with her in our front yard, so we’ve always had that entrepreneurship growing up, and we’ve always dreamed of opening a store. In 2018, we were both between jobs, thinking of the next step in our careers, and I approached her like, “Hey, do you want to open up a store together?” We were in the same position of wanting to get our work and our product out there and not really feeling like there was a place for us. That’s how Hidden Gem started.
How would you describe the vibe of the store?
Willock-Morsch: Hamptons meets Caribbean. Our parents are from Antigua, and we grew up out here in the Hamptons while going back and visiting Antigua. We wanted to mesh those two coastal places and create a Caribbean vibe, so there’s lots of color, lots of prints. It’s an eclectic mix.
Who is your typical customer?
Willock-Morsch: I think our customer is anyone who loves color and texture. … Our store has so many different pieces by so many different artists from around the world that there’s something in there for everybody.
What are your personal favorite items in the store right now—things that just make you smile every time you walk past them?
Willock-Morsch: We have these animal heads—that’s what you were going to say, too?
Willock-Morsch: We’ve been working with a community in Kenya, and they make these beautiful glass-bead animal heads. We also just got this local ceramicist who does pieces with these beautiful lace patterns in them. Pretty much everything that we carry in the store is hand-made by artists, and there’s a story behind it. I’m being a little bit biased, but our surfboards are some of my favorite pieces as well—we’ve become known for them.
Courtesy of Hidden Gem
Yes, the surfboards! Can you talk a bit more about them and about styling the shop to feel Caribbean?
Willock: It started as us just wanting to create a centerpiece for our store, not even necessarily to sell or market. We wanted a big statement piece that would become a staple in the store, to—
Willock-Morsch: Bring the vibe.
Willock: We were looking for a piece that would encompass everything we want the store to be. In that regard, we never really had a set plan or idea or vision; we just started playing around. Willock-Morsch has an amazing eye when it comes to styling or staging anything. She’s my go-to. I think I have a pretty good eye, but it’s nothing compared to my sister. What she does is amazing.
Is there an object that you can’t keep in stock?
Willock-Morsch: We definitely can’t keep the resin boards in stock. They were inspired by our [own] surfboards. We wanted something that would be a little bit more functional [to place in an interior] but have that same feeling. It’s been a battle, running our store and our business, and then coming home and making these resin boards to stock back up.
Willock: It’s nonstop.
Is there any advice you wish you could give yourself if you could go back to your opening day?
Willock: For me, it would be to trust our instincts and our eyes and our creativity. We’d both worked in retail before, so we had a general idea, but it was never our vision that we represented going into work every day. With this store, there was a slight hesitation for me in my capabilities as a curator, as a store owner. I would always second-guess myself, like, “Would people really like this, or is it just me? Is this actually marketable, or is it my own niche?” If I could go back, I would say, “You have a good eye. Someone else will see the beauty in this piece that you love so much.”
It’s funny—every shop owner tells me that! “I should have trusted myself more.” What is your biggest everyday challenge, and what is your biggest existential challenge?
Willock-Morsch: We’re artists at heart. I think our daily challenge is running our business and the organization that it takes to run a business and keep everything on track.
Willock: I agree. It’s really about switching our brain from creativity mode to business mode. I can’t have the store organized the way I have my studio organized. I’m like, “OK, turn off creative Tanya. This is business Tanya.”
Willock-Morsch: There are two of us, and we’re equal partners and we bounce ideas off of each other—that’s also a daily challenge, as it is a great asset. You have to be open to other ideas, and you have to be flexible. Existentially, we get all these great opportunities, and we obviously want to say yes to all of them, but how do you pick and choose what to take on and what not to take on? Last year, we told ourselves the name of the game is saying yes, so we said yes to everything, and then we were so burned out.
Willock: I feel like we’re going to be working on that issue for a very, very long time.
Courtesy of Hidden Gem
I’d love to hear more about that. How do you figure out how to expand, and how do you expand while staying true to your vision and keeping your heads on straight?
Willock-Morsch: When we opened the store four years ago, my vision—our vision, to speak for the both of us—was just to have a shop, have our own creations, and a couple of friends’ creations from college. It has grown so much, naturally. I would have never thought four years ago that this would be where we’re at right now; our business has expanded to tablescapes and event planning.
Willock: I do think [the growth] was natural. When it comes to taking product pictures, a lot of it has to do with [being styled on] someone’s table, like, “Let’s advertise our serving spoons.” So it was really us just playing around, trying to figure out new ways to take pictures. A restaurant that opened up last year looked at our pictures, and they were like, “We love the vibe of your store. This is something we want to do for our restaurant. How can we incorporate you guys?” We started doing the tablescapes for dinners that they set up for us, so our clients and guests came in. From there, [customers] were like, “Oh, can you do this for me at my house?” Or, “I have a birthday party.” We were doing it on a case-by-case basis, and then it turned into a weekly thing.
Willock-Morsch: Summer House, a [Bravo reality] TV show [set in Montauk, New York], said, “We’re filming, and we want you to do a beach setup for us.” That episode aired over the winter, and from there, it has totally exploded. We’ve got beach dinners every weekend. It’s been great, but it definitely is not somewhere we had imagined us being. We’re just going with the flow, and it makes sense for us as individuals. We love throwing a good party and event.
What is it like operating in the Hamptons?
Willock-Morsch: Our whole year, basically, is crushed into three months: June, July, August. That’s the challenge. How do you extend that throughout the rest of the year? We have our online presence, but how do we stay involved in the community, how do we keep our shop open for the people that live here?
How do you prepare for it?
Willock-Morsch: The main thing is figuring out our finances and making sure that we can survive. But we grew up out here, and once September hits, all the stores leave, and there’s nothing left for the locals. We don’t want to leave the locals hanging.
Willock: We live here. We want to shop. As the season comes to a close, we have to start prepping ourselves, like, “OK, now is our time to brainstorm and test out our ideas and bounce off of each other creatively.” We’re still getting shipments and putting them on display to see how the people that are still around, the people in the community, respond to our items and our aesthetic.
Willock-Morsch: [The pandemic] also expanded our online business. We had a website, and we had a couple of pieces, but when the pandemic hit, I had to move our entire business online. That was another natural expansion that we didn’t expect.
Willock-Morsch: That’s one of the things I’d go back and tell myself too. I’m a planner, and I like being super organized, so I would have told myself to be open and flexible and to imagine that things will never go as you planned.
Courtesy of Hidden Gem
Is there something you wish you could convey to customers about the business, or something you wish they understood?
Willock-Morsch: There are people that come into the shop and pick something up, and they’re like, “Oh, wow, this is very expensive,” and we have to explain to them why it’s expensive. This hand-made piece took someone a week to bead. It’s so funny, because Louis Vuitton is one of our neighbors. They wouldn’t go into Louis Vuitton and pick up one of their shoes and say, “This is so expensive.”
Willock: I guess it’s because we’re so small. I wish people would understand that because we’re small, and we want to showcase works of artists and people that we’ve had the pleasure of meeting throughout our travels, and the fact that these are made by real people who take their time… That’s why we have these prices, because we want to be fair to the people that we work with.
I assume that the Hamptons customers are wealthier people, so they know what things cost or whatever, but I do think Amazon has broken our brains.
Willock: It’s so funny, because you’re right. People ask us for free shipping, or [complain], “My package is taking a week to get to California.” I wish that people would understand we’re packing everything up ourselves, we’re running to the UPS store and shipping it. It’s literally two women running the business, doing Instagram, answering emails, making the products.
What is a great day as a shop owner?
Willock: Nice and steady. I don’t want it to be too overflowing with people, because then I get overwhelmed and I can’t give my time and energy to each customer like I like to. So it’s a nice, steady flow throughout the day where I’m able to have time with each customer and give them the history of the pieces that they’re looking at. One of the perks of owning your own business and working with these artisans is you get to know them and their craft, and I want to share their process with someone. “Yeah, of course it’s a bowl, but also, just so you know, this bowl is hand-done, it took [the maker] three days, and… ”
Willock-Morsch: The other day, a customer came in, and she was looking at some of Tanya’s drawings, and I was telling her, “Oh, my sister makes them.” I was explaining the inspiration. The customer had mentioned that she’s not an artist, but she was just coloring in a coloring book and it just brought her so much peace. I just really enjoy conversations like that, around art and creating things. That’s what I enjoy most.